February 20, 2014

The Anyion: Questions on Obsessions

People who are unbelievably in love (read: obsessed) with something have a part of their social identity defined by loving that thing. A person’s obsession is a unique tag that makes her known in her social circle for something. Especially in an academic world, I’ve found that people intensely focused and productive in a discipline are a source of envy for those who just like a bit of everything.

I came to UChicago knowing that I wanted to study economics. I figured that if talking about the Fed is what gets me super-pumped for life, I have a not-so-special case of economania that I should probably exploit. As I started getting nice and cozy in this niche of intellectual fervor and my friends started coming to me for help with econ homework, I met my borderline-obsessed gentleman friend.

This gentleman friend does math. He does his own math, and his friends’ math, and the math of random people who have the misfortune of being caught doing math next to him. I watched him buzz around the Eckhart chalkboards, still writing proofs just for fun long after class ended. No matter what math question I throw at him from my homework for a math class he’s never taken, he can come up with a clever, correct proof based on some knowledge he picked up “just reading some research.”

Constantly being around such a singularly obsessed person made me math-nauseous and a bit overshadowed. I wanted to be noticed for my talents too, but whatever econ prowess I had was shown up by my gentleman friend's proficiency in his own field. I felt like the Hermione Granger–like kid in the front row that’s bouncing up and down going “Ooh ooh ooh, pick me! Pick me!” All I wanted was to be excited about Janet Yellen instead of Georg Cantor.

Walking home one night, engaged in a heated discussion about whether or not econ fundamentally boils down to math, I set out to make him see econ’s importance. Once home, I giddily grabbed a marker and found a nearby window and started to draw graphs, explain ratios, and (hopefully) blow his mind with the fractional reserve banking system. Once I began, though, I faltered. I mixed up the names of basic definitions. I had to surreptitiously find the answers to some of his questions on Wikipedia. And, worst of all, I had to finally admit to myself what I probably knew all along: that he knows more math than I know economics and, more importantly, probably likes math more than I like economics.

In this bubble of academia, where passion is a source of pride, finding cracks in my obsession made me wonder if the title of econ major that I wore so proudly was a false one. Perhaps I had tricked myself into thinking that I really loved econ purely out of the need to have something to be passionate about. While I knew that I’d love to have The Thing That Anya Loves Most, I never thought about what would happen if I didn’t.

I now know, however, what happens if I do. The things a person is passionate about—especially if they constitute a singular, all-consuming passion—define her. And sooner or later, they come to shape the people around them, too.

Anya Marchenko is the blogger behind The Anyion. She is a first-year in the College.